Crusaders dink, dunk their way to tourney
By John Mutka Post-Tribune senior correspondent May 31, 2012 11:04PM
VALPARAISO — So what gives with Vaparaiso University’s baseball team?
Simply put, the Crusaders are supersizing with small ball.
Proving that home runs don’t always translate into victories, the Crusaders have bunted, bingled and pitched their way into the NCAA regional.
“It’s paid off pretty well,” said first baseman John Loeffler, who leads the team with 17 doubles. He comes into the tournament at the Steel Yard with a modest .270 average, but with a 33-game on-base streak, largely because of 30 walks. “We get guys in scoring position, moving runners, putting on the pressure.”
“He’s definitely our most patient hitter,” said VU coach Tracy Woodson, whose Crusaders have won 27 of their last 32 games. During that stretch they’re averaging .312 and 6.7 runs.
Loeffler’s selective approach paid off in the Horizon League tournament. One of five Crusaders named to the all-tournament team, he drove in eight runs, batting .412 in four tournament games.
“I’m pretty much of a gap hitter,” Loeffler said. “I’m not the fastest guy alive. My job is to set the table. Just get on base.”
On their way to their first regional appearance since 1968, the Crusaders tied the school record of 35 victories by squeezing out runs, producing despite only 14 home runs in 58 games. Taking it for the team, second baseman Tanner Vavra wears bruises like a badge of honor. He ranks among the top five in Division I, being hit by a pitch 21 times and leads the Crusaders with 22 sacrifice hits.
Vavra, freshman Spencer Mahoney, MVP Mark Johson and pitcher Tyler Deetjen also received all-Horizon honors.
Mahoney missed nearly six weeks rehabbing a partially torn miniscus. His return coincides with VU’s surge from 10 games below .500 to its first Horizon League title. In the tournament the rookie sensation batted .455 with seven RBI.
When Will Hagel separated his shoulder Johnson stepped up with a .400 tournament average, his six RBI including a game-winning hit against UIC.
Supposedly, the Boilermakers are hosting the NCAA Regional, but Woodson is indulging in mind games to make it seem otherwise.
Loeffler’s only experience at the Steel Yard comes from watching a RailCats game, but nearly half of the VU roster has actually been involved in games, dating back to the Horizon League Tournament, which was played here in 2010.
“We’re 3-5 here so we haven’t had a ton of success,” Woodson concedes, “but we’ve played Indiana and Notre Dame and the Horizon League (tournament) here.”
Actually, Purdue has a stronger Northwest Indiana presence with players like Crown Point reliever Blake Mascallero (8-1, three saves), Griffith first baseman Ryan Bridges (.296) and LaPorte pitcher Connor Podkul (2-3, 12 appearances), who was recruited by VU.
Judging from the response to VU’s success, Woodson expects a strong influx of VU alumni.
“I’ve never had so many emails, text messages,” he said, pausing. “Phone calls ... it’s been non-stop. I’ve heard from old grads who haven’t seen Valpo play in years, who said they’ll be here. It shows we’re on the right track, doing it the right way.”
Being the lowest seed in the regional doesn’t bother Woodson, who will start Deetjen (8-2, 3.22 ERA) against Purdue ace Joe Haase (10-1, 3.41). The Crusaders have held their own against Arkansas, which was ranked No. 4 when they met in February, winning 10-9. In a 4-3 loss they had the go-ahead runs in scoring position in the ninth before bowing.
Valparaiso has also beaten Notre Dame and Ball State. It’s 7-4 in extra innings.
“We feel we can play with anybody,” says Woodson. “We could easily have 40 wins. Eleven of our losses were by one run.”
Big league scouts will be watching Purdue’s Kevin Plawecki, the Big Ten player of the year and tournament MVP. He carries a .365 average with 20 doubles and seven homers.
“He could be the best catcher in the country,” Woodson says.
Kentucky’s Wildcats will tangle with Kent State in the other regional game Friday. The Golden Flashes bring a 17-game winning streak into the regional after winning their fourth straight Mid-America Conference Tournament. Kentucky opened with 22 straight victories, but cooled off to settle for an 18-12 record in the SEC.
Center fielder Austin Cousins, the SEC freshman of the year, batted .318 with 19 doubles and nine homers.
Kent State packs power to spare with Nick Hamilton (.377), David Lyon (10 homers) and George Roberts (57 RBI). Pitchers David Starn (1.77 ERA) and Tyler Kalina are 10-game winners and Ryan Bores is 8-2.